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The Taittiriya Upanishad

A developed emanationist metaphysical system is found in the Taittiriya Upanishad, which shows obvious traces of influence from the slightly earlier and less systemmatic Chandogya Upanishad.  For example:

"From this Self (Atman), Space (akasha) arose; from Space air; from air fire; from fire water; from water the earth..."
[S. Radhakrishnan (transl.), The Principle Upanishads, p. 542, (London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1953)].

Here the three elements are replaced by five; each higher one more subtle then the one it generates - Space or akasha (usually but wrongly translated as "ether", whilst the popular Theosophical conception of the "Akashic Record" has absolutely no foundation in Indian metaphysics), Air, Fire, Water, and Earth - which became the five standard elements of Indian cosmology, being incorporated into the later Samkhyan metaphysics and Tantric system of correspondences

Each higher element is more subtle then the one it generates.  So space is more subtle than air, because you can feel air (the wind, etc), air more subtle than fire, which can be felt (heat) and seen (as light), and so on.  Hence the elements were associated with the senses, and so on.  And the sequence passes (as in the earlier Chandogya Upanishad) through a series of stages or gradations, from the more subtle to the more dense.  The most subtle principle of all of course, and the origin of everything else, is the Absolute or Monistic principle, here identified with the Self (Atman)

But an even more important and influential mystical concept is five selves.  The Taittiriya Upanishad is exceptional in that it is one of the first writings to present a systemmatic metaphysic or theory of first principles.  It speaks of the individual as divided into five selves (atma, initially - as with all such terms - "breath", and then "self" or "soul"; the term elsewhere, and especially later, came to characterise that aspect of the self which is synonymous with the Absolute)

Five levels of self are referred to: the anna-maya-atma or the "Self (atma) made of Food"; the prana-maya-atma or "the Self made of Vital Breath (prana)"; the mana-maya-atma "the Self made of Mind (manas)"; the vijnana-maya-atma or "the Self made of Consciousness or intellect (vijnana)", and finally the ananda-maya-atma or "the Self made of Bliss (ananda)", where one attains to Brahman.  The spiritual aspirant, in the quest for Self- and God-realisation, passes under the guidance of the Master through each of these selves in turn, finally at-taining to the Absolute or Brahman, which is synonymous with the highest or Bliss Self

There is a strong resemblence here to the Hellenistic Hermetic and Neoplatonic scheme of more than a millennia later.  According to this, the gross physical body is only the outermost of a number of "bodies" or "vehicles" - ochema - to use the Neoplatonic term.  Death means the discarding, first of the physical, than of the successive subtle vehicles, until only the immortal Spirit, the Nous, remains

There is however little or no similarity with the Egyptian, Chinese, and original Kabbalistic conceptions, all of which spoke in terms of many souls,  rather than a single gradational continuum from material body to divine spirit.  Later Kabbalistic writers on the other hand did posit a five-fold continuum (Nefesh-Ruah-Neshamah-Hayyah-Yehidah) more or less analogous to the Taittiriya and Hellenistic Hermetic versions

The Taittiriya Upanishad presents a very world-affirming philosophy, because each level of self is described in a positive way, and Brahman itself is referred to emphatically as the nature of Bliss (Ananda).  Thus, one begins with Life (or "food", referring perhaps to the ecological web) and attains to Bliss

But about a thousand years to fifteen hundred years after the Taittiriya Upanishad was composed (i.e. around the seventh and eighth centuries), this world-affirming cosmology was adopted and subverted by the very anti-worldly school of Advaita Vedanta.  The sages Guadapada and Shankara, the founders of the Advaitin spiritual tradition, promulgated the idea that all phenomenal existence is, if not literally illusory, then at least "false" (mithya) and ontologically inferior, and that only the Absolute is truely real.  But even that Absolute Reality (or Brahman) is totally devoid of qualities (nirguna)

The five selves then became five "sheaths" (Skt koshas) veiling the light of the True Self (the the Atman).  The Taittiriya Upanishad's terminology was retained, but the concepts used were rather different.  This of course is always the case: words change much more slowly than the ideas they are used to represent.  Thus a polemicist can use an ancient and respected authority to mean something totally different, and at times even totally at variance to, the meaning intended by the original writer.

And in this particular case it is unfortunate that it has been the world-negating Advaitin cosmology, and not the world-affirming cosmology of the early Upanishads, that was to have the greatest impact in Indian religious and spiritual thought.

This is of course not to deny the value of Advaita as soteriological system. And indeed in its own cultural milieu it is less a philosophy than a pragmatic system for guiding yogic practice. And as a vehicle for guiding seekers to realization, or at least to a satisfactory spiritual experience, it does its task well, as generations of jnana yogis and mystics would attest. But as a conceptual philosophy or ontology for explaining the nature of phenomal existence, it unfortunately encourages a pessimistic anti-worldiness.

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internal link Early Upanishadic Emanationism: The Chandogya Upanishad

internal link Middle Upanishadic Theism: The Katha Upanishad

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content by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 30 June 1999